Friday, 12 April 2013

Lost Worlds and Rubber Monsters Part 2: You Cannot Mesmerise Me - I'm British!

One of the daftest pulp writers of the early 20th Century was Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan - a grown man in a loin cloth who thinks he's a monkey, the basic message being that high-society girls all desire an unwashed, crazy homeless dude who'd probably shit in his own hand and throw it at you if you looked at him funny.

Since Arthur Conan Doyle had initiated the 'Lost World' sub-genre with the publication of his 1912 novel entitled... uh... The Lost World, Burroughs also wrote a number of dinosaur epics in a similar vein, most famously his 'Caspak Trilogy' and even a series set inside the Earth, the Vernesque 'Pellucidar Series'.

Burroughs, like all early pulp writers, is terrifically entertaining. Since his work was written so quickly (pulp writers were paid by the word), it has the same, nonsensical, hallucinatory feel to it as the likes of Fantomas, Dr. Fu-Manchu, or Sexton Blake. Between the 1900s and the 1960s, Pulp magazines and cheap paperbacks generally offered up quality surrealist literature that was only accidentally surrealist. Often written at a furious place, they lack reason or logic but are steeped in daftness to an almost lyrical extent.

So, what with the film industry being huge admirers of daftness (how else would you explain Prometheus?), it was only a matter of time before they would come knocking at his door. Tarzan films were being made as far back as the silent era. And Burroughs even contributed to the screenplay of King Kong (1933) but it is a series adaptations by the producer/director team of John Dark and Kevin Connor that are of interest to us.

These adaptations, incidentally, starred hefty monkey-man, Doug McClure. And despite him being a busy and very hard working actor, I'll bet if that you know his name, two things come to mind; Troy McClure from The Simpsons and vague memories of rubber dinosaur movies you saw on a rainy, Sunday afternoon as a kid.

They were produced by British company Amicus, who always seem to have the words, 'Hammer's main rival' after them whenever they are mentioned in articles. They are most famous for their portmanteau horror films, but in the 70s, as Hammer declined to the point where they were making atrocities like Holiday on the Buses (1973), Amicus  recognised that the horror business had radically changed, movies of TV sitcoms were crap and it was time to attempt a blockbuster. Amicus was run out of a shed located 'round the back of Shepperton Studios by two Americans, Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky.

The first of these productions was The Land that Time Forgot (1975), which has one of those titles that makes you assume that it's not a real film.

With a screenplay a writer no less illustrious than the great Michael Moorcock, the film tells the story of a lost U-boat crew whose submarine has been hijacked by British and American survivors of the passenger ship they torpedo at the beginning of the film. After lots of buggering about in the South Atlantic, they come across the lost continent of Caprona (named after a fictional 18th Century explorer, Caproni, who first described it). Since they have a submarine, our heroes are able to do what Caproni couldn't; follow a stream of warm water to locate an underwater tunnel and pass under the vast, rock cliffs that guard the mysterious island.

I'll give you three guesses as to what they find there.

Why can't a T-rex and a Triceratops 
just learn to get on?

No men in monster suits this time; this time the hot, dino-on-dino action is portrayed by rod puppets created by Roger Dicken.

Weirdly, the whole thing actually works as a good (not great, but good) movie and staple of Sunday afternoon family entertainment. It helps that the cast take their roles absolutely seriously, though John McEnery (as the U-boat captain) was entirely re-voiced by Anton Differing, so God knows what his performance was originally like. How hart ist it to do der German akzent, Ja?

The dinosaur effects are pretty clumsy; the puppets are clearly puppets and the pterodactyls look like static models hung from a crane (which is particularly funny when one carries off a caveman) but it's all just part of the charm. The U-boat effects are more successful, despite the problems of scaling up water. They're about on par with the model work in Das Boot (1981). The film ends on a surprisingly downbeat tone, with just about everyone getting boiled alive as the submarine is overcome by an erupting volcano; only Bowen Tyler (McClure) and his love interest, Lisa (Susan Penhaligon) survive, allowing for a framing device whereby the entire film is told in flashback via a message found in a watertight container.

Naturally, this also allowed for a sequel.

The People that Time Forgot (1977) was produced by the same team but was less successful. The main attraction this time being not the dinosaurs but a young Dana Gillespie as a sweaty, big-boobed cave girl.

If cave girls perspired baby oil and
had perfectly styled hair.

Although, to be frank, the sequel is perfectly watchable. McClure is absent for most of the running time, since the plot focuses more on attempts to rescue him and some of the dinosaur set pieces, whilst looking even more fake than the first film, are entertaining enough; a mid-air dogfight between a biplane and a pterodactyl is particularly well done. Well, I say well done; I mean entertaining in its cheesiness. 

This is one of those trailers that tell you
all you need to know. There, you don't
have to bother watching the film now.

Trouble is, the two movies were seriously lacking in the one thing that automatically makes a movie great. That one element that, when added to a film, not matter how dreadful, automatically makes it a masterpiece.

"I'm Peter Fucking Cushing,

Fortunately, this was remedied by Amicus's in between project, At the Earth's Core (1976). And it's glorious.

It's basically the tale of Dr. Abner Perry and David Innes (Cushing and McClure, naturally), two intrepid but slightly incompetent Victorian explorers drilling down to the Earth's Core in their mechanical digging machine, The Iron Mole. By accident.

Alright, maybe a bit more than slightly incompetent.

On the plus side, the Earth's Core does contain Dia in the shapely form of Caroline Munroe.

An exceptionally interesting
geological feature.

Naturally, just about every bloke from every tribe is after Dia, so it's up to David to defend her honour. This causes him to get accidentally engaged to her. Fortunately, this causes him to get accidentally engaged to her!

Cushing, though, is the real star here. He clearly realises the level of nonsense that he is in and does his very worst Dr. Who impersonation, and by that, I'm not referring to The Doctor from the BBC's Doctor Who, I'm referring to those god-awful 1960s Dalek movies in which Cushing played a human scientist actually called "Dr. Who". Despite the fact that he appears to be playing a doddery old git with an eating disorder, Cushing is something of a badass here, even at one point, dispatching a giant, fire breathing toad with a homemade bow and arrow in a scene that has to be seen to be believed...

Do not mess with The Cushing otherwise
The Cushing will make you fucking explode.

We also have him put up a fight against psyching pterodactyls... oh wait, no, sorry; got to get my species right; giant, man-sized "rhamphorhynchus of the middle-Jurassic period" that look nothing like rhamphorhynchus (rhamphorhynchus's? rhamphorhynchuses? rhamphorhynchi?) by spouting this line...

If this happened in real life, the rhamphor... rhampa... ramihampadink...
that big bird's head would explode.

But as much as we all love the Gentleman of Horror, you came here for dinosaurs. Rubber ones. So does At the Earth's Core deliver? Oh yes. Yes it does.

It was a legal obligation in the '70s for rubber dinosaurs to
pick up a doll with its teeth so that you'd get a shot of two little
legs kicking in its mouth.

But the real star of the show is The Iron Mole, a huge, Steampunk contraption, resembling The Mole from Thunderbirds. More Verne that Burroughs, it's a beautiful example of production design; the sort you don't see these days. Now, films tend to go completely over the top when wheeling out some Fantabulous Victorian Contrabulation. In the '50s, '60s and '70s, these things always seemed more credible--total products of science fiction, and yet, seemingly within the realms of possibility, had those wacky Victorians actually attempted to build them.

The John Dark/Kevin Conner/Doug McClure team returned for one more outing, this time backed by EMI and a much higher budget. Warlords of Atlantis (1978) was the result. Shot on location in Malta, the film boasts a much glossier look that their Amicus efforts and tells the story of a Victorian dive team happening upon the Lost Continent of Atlantis in their diving bell. Some of the monster effects, including a giant octopus, are actually pretty awesome, and the cast, including Peter Gilmore, Shane Rimmer and a pre-Cheers John Ratzenberger is more upmarket than Amicus could have afforded. Even Cyd Charisse and her legs turn up at one point, as one of the Martian rulers of Atlantis (it makes sense in context... no wait, sorry, it doesn't).

I will leave you with it's fishy and rather rubbery trailer...